Originally published by tcg on August 27, 2014
Post image for #Ferguson: They Who Have the Guns Have the Power

Torie Wiggins as Mimi, Meggy Hai Trang as Anita, Keisha Kemper as Harry, Burgess Byrd as Shilo, Ken Early as Maddox, Darnell Benjamin as Knox, Jon Kovach as Overseer Jones, and Sola Thompson as Vivian. Photo by Daniel R. Winters

(Ed. Note: The following blog salon series will focus on how theatre artists are responding to Michael Brown’s death and the oppression, violence, and resistance happening in Ferguson, MOThis series grew out of a series of discussions between Oregon based theatre-makers Claudia AlickMica Cole and Massachusetts based theatre-maker Megan Sandberg-Zakian, and myself. If you would like to participate in this series, please email Gus Schulenburg.)

I was on a plane back to Los Angeles from Cincinnati the day Michael Brown was shot. Having been on the road for 11 weeks, it was a few days before I could focus on anything other than sleep. When I came to and took in the full weight of what was going on in Ferguson, I was saddened and horrified, but not surprised. And as with all of these kinds of shootings, I was very aware of my privilege as a white woman – I have never had to fear the police – and also as an artist who has the chance to make and remake the world through theater. Theater has the potential to remind us who we are, who we have been, and who we might become.

The play I just directed at the Know Theatre of Cincinnati , Harry and the Thief, by Sigrid Gilmer, has become the lens through which I am interpreting the unfolding events in Ferguson; through which I am finding relief from my anger about police brutality and the evolution of America’s prison-industrial complex, especially as it affects poor people of color; and through which I am able to see Ferguson as what it is: American history repeating and repeating and repeating itself.

This is not just because the play is funny (it is) and I really, really need a laugh right now (I do). It’s not just because the writing, acting, and design are really, really good (they are). And it’s not just because the play reminds me that America’s original sin – that of slavery – reverberates and challenges and corrupts our culture on every level and at every moment in our history, including now (it does). It’s because the play creates an alternate reality in which the people with the power to decide who lives and who dies are black.

Harry and the Thief, a play in which a woman travels back in time to provide weapons to Harriet Tubman, is the definition of “empowering:” It uses the fact that Tubman’s life was so fantastical as to seem fictional to create a world in which black people have much more power than they had then and now. In real life, a teenaged Tubman intervened in an argument between a slave and the overseer to whom she had been hired out that day, and she was hit in the head with a two-pound iron weight for her trouble. When she was 27, she ran away with her brothers, who promptly got scared and forced her to turn back. Two weeks later, she left on her own and made it to freedom. When Tubman became involved with the Underground Railroad, she gladly accepted the title of Moses, declaring that God had in fact called her to go down South and bring up her brothers and sisters. Though she was a woman, the majority of the slaves she led to freedom were men. She not only attended abolitionist meetings in the North but also spoke from the stage to audiences composed primarily of white males. Tubman, in short, had some serious, if metaphorical, balls.

Ann Petry on Harriet Tubman

Image from the cover of Ann Petry’s book on Harriett Tubman

This manly degree of strength is epitomized in the iconography, established long ago and exploited by Gilmer in the play, of Tubman wielding that most phallic of tools: A gun. Depictions of Tubman with a weapon have always been controversial, especially to those who would rather think of her as a religious leader than as a soldier, but they are truthful nonetheless. During the war she almost certainly carried the rifle shown in most images of “the General”. During her time as Moses, she carried a pistol, and as Gilmer dramatizes, she used that pistol to intimidate scared escapees into continuing. Significantly, however, no record exists of Tubman ever actually injuring anyone.

Just as the real Tubman never shot any of the fugitives in her care, in Harry and the Thief, when the fictional character of Vivian is provided with multiple opportunities to shoot the unarmed white overseer who repeatedly raped her, she chooses not to.[1] Though Mimi, modern gunslinger and time-traveler, questions Harry’s decision to even let the overseer tag along on their journey, Harry and Vivian see him as a person just as in need of freedom as anybody else. In fact Gilmer goes so far as to redeem both of the white characters in the play by having them be sorry, making the “fiction” part of her “historical fiction” the provision of a kind of closure to that period of our history that in reality, neither white nor black Americans have ever had.

In reality, black women, who are both more likely to experience assault and less likely to report it than white women, rarely have the chance either to punish or forgive their attackers. In reality, racists, rapists, and human traffickers rarely say that they are sorry even when they are caught. In reality, it is not militarized black women who are a threat to unarmed white men. Rather, black Americans are profiled, discriminated against, segregated, jailed, impoverished, and denied access to justice at astonishing rates. A black man in this country can be shot for holding a toy gun. A black woman who fires a warning shot to fend off an attacker can be put in jail for the rest of her life. A black teenager can be stalked and killed by a vigilante who is later found innocent by a jury of his peers. It goes on and on.

But Harry and the Thief does not just offer insight to people who already agree with me about race, guns, and power in America. It can also be enlightening to people who are wondering whether the alleged petty crime Michael Brown committed or the marijuana in his system somehow did make him a threat and to people who think that a few looters and a Molotov cocktail that didn’t light might justify bringing attack dogs to peaceful protests, using tear gas, and calling in the National Guard. Gilmer’s humorous flipping of the script can enable anyone to see that, whether in fiction or reality, it’s the people with the weapons that have the power.

Theaters looking to do something to spark discussion of Ferguson in their communities should take a look at Gilmer’s play. Whether your audiences are primarily composed of people whose legitimate rage over injustices committed against black people in Ferguson needs the temporary remediation of laughter, or people whose sympathy with a white cop’s fear of a tall black teenager needs the remediation of witnessing a truly disempowered person holding a gun on someone who is actually a threat to her very existence and choosing not to shoot, this play has much to offer. People in the second group might even be prompted to ask themselves, if a young fugitive slave who was forced to carry her rapist’s child against her will can believably hold her attacker, who has hunted her down at night in the woods, at gunpoint and yet choose to let him live, then why, in the middle of the day, can a white cop with a gun not manage to do the same for an unarmed black teenager who, to the cop’s knowledge, had done nothing worse than walk in the street instead of on the sidewalk? [2]

In Ferguson, the police and the National Guard have the guns. They have the dogs, the riot gear, the batons, and the tear gas. They have the power. They are the threat to the lives, safety, and freedom of the citizens living there, not the other way around.

If you’re in Cincinnati, check out The Know Theatre’s production of Harry and the Thief, which runs through Saturday, August 30.

[1] Vivian does use her gun to shoot Confederate soldiers during the war, which is completely different from shooting an unarmed man in peace time.

[2] This is according to the police department’s original statement. The shooter has since changed his version of events.

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Originally published by The Know Theatre of Cincinnati on July 17, 2014

10429246_10152366692474261_3680419330091930245_nIn preparation for directing Sigrid Gilmer’s Harry & the Thief, I’m reading a book called Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History. In it, the author, Milton C. Sernott, traces the development of Harriet Tubman as American icon by examining primary sources, children’s books (there are more than 100), and historical biographies. Quoting historian David W. Blight, Sernott explains how myth develops from a combination of history and memory:

Memory is often treated as a sacred set of potentially absolute meanings and stories, possessed as the heritage of a community. Memory is often owned; history, interpreted. Memory is passed down through generations; history is revised. Memory often coalesces in objects, sacred sites, and monuments; history seeks to understand contexts and the complexity of cause and effect. History asserts the authority of academic training and recognized canons of evidence; memory carries the often powerful authority of community membership and experience.

Gilmer’s new play about one of the most famous African Americans in history draws on both history and cultural memory to depict Tubman as we’ve never seen her before.

Whereas first-hand accounts of Tubman telling her own story use the dialect typically ascribed to illiterate slaves – “I saw de’ oberseer raisin’ up to throw an iron weight at one ob de slaves an’ dat wuz de las’ I knew” – Gilmer’s Tubman speaks with the voice of a modern leader. Whereas many accounts of Tubman’s life as a conductor on the Underground Railroad conflate historical fact with received memories without comment, Gilmer uses contemporary songs and film tropes to emphasize the fact that when we tell the story of Harriet Tubman, we are telling a story on a scale as epic as that of any ancient mythology.

When the Know approached me about directing Harry, I responded with enthusiasm but also asked that every attempt be made to find a black woman to direct. Though as a journalist I have covered successful collaborations between black playwrights and white directors (see here and here), and one between a white playwright and a black director (here), I am extremely wary of co-opting the story of a black woman as told by another black woman.

Many times in the history of American entertainment, the creative endeavors of African Americans have been stolen, imitated, corrupted, and otherwise used for profit by white Americans. Sometimes it’s done poorly (see my piece on Miley Cyrus at the VMAs), and sometimes it’s done with amazing artistic integrity. But even Jenji Kohan, who means well and is making a hugely important contribution to diversity in entertainment with her series Orange is the New Black, has not been able to avoid turning a story about something largely experienced by women of color and poor women into a partial regurgitation of the lie of the rich, white savior.

In Harry and the Thief, there is no white savior.

First Read

In fact, there are only two white characters, and though their arcs are fascinating and integral to the play, this is story about fugitive slaves, about contemporary black men and women grappling with the ongoing legacy of slavery in American culture, and about the malleability of history, especially when it comes to the disenfranchised.

As a director, I often describe what I do as translation. I translate writing on the page into action on the stage. I translate actor impulses into narrative structures. I translate history and memory into stories being told right here, right now, right in front of the audience. My hope with this production is that I can serve primarily as a translator for the epic myth of Harriet Tubman, for Gilmer’s voice, and for the memories and thoughts and feelings of the actors embodying these characters. Because I can read about the history of slavery and the Underground Railroad, I can read about modern-day discrimination, and I can imagine myself walking in the shoes of a person who experienced/s that. But I cannot remember it.

One of my favorite teachers and mentors, Anne Bogart, has a new book out, What’s the Story: Essays about Art, Theater and Storytelling, in which she advises readers on the value of telling stories even about things you the storyteller and your audience have never experienced:

It is becoming increasingly clear that the hegemony of isolationism is not a solution to our present global circumstances. Our understanding of action and responsibility is changing. We know that our tiniest gestures have large-scale effects, as do the outward ripples of a pebble thrown into a pond. In moments such as these, of upheaval and change, stories become necessary to frame our experiences. … From their ancient origins and continuing through today, stories bind societies by reinforcing common values and strengthening the ties of a shared culture. But they do more than that. Stories give order and meaning to existence and are less costly than direct experience because with stories it is possible to collect information without having to personally undergo the experience. … In the theater we construct journeys for audiences utilizing the tools of time and space. An effective production communicates in ways that infiltrate the audience in multiple layers, weaving details and scenes, narration, imagery, symbolic action, plot and character. We create societies, tell stories, and propose means by which people can live together with increased humanity, empathy, and humor.

Sigrid Gilmer’s Harry and the Thief not only provides a new version of the Tubman myth, it also endows that myth with the possibility of engendering even more dramatic social change.

I can’t wait to get started translating this play into a production that can provide audiences with the opportunity to dream and imagine a future on a scale as grand as Gilmer’s fictional one.